February 2008 Newsletter: Special Feature
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 Special Feature: Heritage Walks in Athens

The "city of the violet crown", as she was described by the Theban poet Pindar, was in remote antiquity inhabited by Pelasgians and by Greek speaking Ionians. Both considered themselves "autochthones", and in the 5th century, the father of history, Herodotos from Halicarnassos, wrote that Athenians of his time believed these two peoples had lived together for a period and that some Athenian customs were derived from the Pelasgians.

In myth, the city's origin was ascribed to Kekrops, and its name "Kekropia". Myth again related that two great Olympian gods, Poseidon and Athena, offered its inhabitants symbolic gifts. They chose the bountiful olive tree Athena offered instead of the salt sea, and came to be called "Athenians". Also in myth, Athens' most important king was Theseus, son of Aigeus, who defeated the Minotaur and released the city from the vassal's tax paid to Crete. Another important achievement ascribed in myth to Theseus was the unification of all the towns of Attica with Athens as their centre. Tradition related that the last king, Kodros, sacrificed himself to hold back the invasion of the Dorians, Greek speakers of another dialect. Thus the city remained entirely Ionian.

The first archaeological remains around the Acropolis date to the Neolithic period (4000-3200 BCE). There is archeological evidence of important changes on the Greek mainland about the end of the third millennium BC, which may possibly also indicate the arrival of new language groups. During the Mycenaean period (16th-13th centuries), Athens seems to have been less important than Mycenae, Tiryns, Pylos and Thebes. In the 13th century, however, a Cyclopean Wall was built around the Acropolis, including a spring and the ruler's palace.

It is in the 11th century that Athens first emerged in the artistic avantgarde of Greek culture, with its protogeometric pottery style. The geometric period (900-700) is distinguished in art by the high quality of its pottery. Horizontal, diagonal and vertical lines, triangles, circles and semicircles, are carefully interwoven with secondary geometric motifs. Here the harmony and balance that will mark Greek art are already evident. Around 700, as a consequence of increased trade, the colonization movement and, above all, orientalising influence, archaic art appears, revolutionary in its time because of its wider range of themes and freedom of artistic interpretation.

At some stage monarchy was replaced by an aristocratic oligarchy. This change of regime resulted in the Acropolis being converted from the ruler's residence into the city's religious centre.

Political development continued with the first written code introduced by the harsh lawgiver Draco around 620. He was followed by the lawgiver and poet, Solon, the forerunner of democracy. As archon in 594-593 Solon introduced the "Seisachthia', or shaking free of burdens ("achthi"), relieving the Athenians of debts guaranteed by the persons or the land of citizens. He forbade future enslavement for debt. He founded the popular Assembly of the people, with a Council to prepare business and with the Heliaia as a people's law court. Since no salary attached to public office however and since the traditional tribes were not abolished, only the wealthy could serve the city and the aristocratic class retained to the full its influence over the people.

Political conflict between the powerful allowed the tyrant Peisistratos to attain power on three occasions between 561 and 546. Pesistratos, who reorganized the Panathenaic Festival, and, after his death in 527, his two sons Hippias and Hipparchos, maintained the forms of the Solonian laws but in fact ruled the city autocratically. Solon's legislation, revolutionary for its time, was reinforced by Pesistratos' policies in encouraging the rise of merchants, seamen and craftsmen producers. The tyrants patronized letters and the fine arts. The oral poetry of Homer was put into writing. In 534 theatrical competitions were instituted in honor of the god Dionysos. Temples and public buildings were set up, including the first public library. Sculptors, with an impressive series of Kouroi (statues of young men) and Korai (statues of young women), constantly stove to master human proportion, thus moving steadily towards classical perfection. Athenian potters and painters created masterpieces both in the black-fig­ure and in the red-figure style, which last they invented around 525 BC. Athens was now the chief centre of ceramic art in the Mediterranean.

In 514 the tyrannicides Harmodios and Aristogeiton assassinated Hipparchos, soon afterwards to become heroes of democracy. Despite harsh repression, in 510 the tyranny was overthrown. This time however the ens­uing conflict between powerful families was resolved in 508-507 by the decision of Cleisthenes to draw the people in on his side. Thus was the first ever democratic constitution established in Athens offering Athenian citizens liberty, equality under the law and equality in the exercise of their political rights. The Athenians were now divided into ten new tribes based on local municipalities and not on descent. Decisions were taken by the majority of male citizens in the Assembly after preliminary discussion in the Council. Most public appointments were made by lot, and were salaried. Every Athenian male had the right to vote, and from the age of 30 to hold public office.

In 499 the Ionian cities in Asia Minor revolted against the Persian yoke. Athens sent assistance, without success. The Persians took revenge, sending an expedition in 490, and bringing the deposed tyrant Hippias in tow. The battle of Marathon, where 10,000 Athenians and 1,000 Plataeans on their own roundly defeated the numerically superior Persians, represents the first ever instance in world history of a democracy defeating an expansionist autocracy. Miltiades' success inspired many other cities to resist Xerxes' expedition (480-479). In the intervening years a rich vein of silver was discovered at the Lavrion mines. Its explotation by means of the labor of thousands of slaves led, as a result of Themistocles' prompting, to the construction of the Athenian fleet which played as crucial a role in the battles of Salamis (480) and Mycale (479) as did the Spartan army at Thermopylae (480) and Plataia (479). This moment represents the peak of achievement in the history of the Greek citystates, when political and artistic achievement were equally impressive, with the tragedian Aeschylus fighting at Marathon and Sophocles, as a youth of 16, taking part in the victory celebrations at Salamis.

Art had now entered the period known as the "severe style", with the archaic smile disappearing from sculpture. Simultaneously the human body was freed from its hitherto static appearance to be represented in action, just as the Athenian citizen became politically and socially active in the first decades of democracy.

The fifty years that elapsed between the end of the Persian invasion (479) and the beginning of the Peloponnesian War (431) saw Athens become the first empire in history ruled by a democracy. Outstanding political leaders such as the elected generals Kimon and Perikles, gifted personalities in learning and the arts, but also simple citizens, together created the ideal atmosphere of the "glorious city". The Parthenon of Iktinos and Kallikrates and the Propylaia of Mnesicles represent the high points of classical architecture. The Parthenon frieze and its pedimental statues by Pheidias, bringing together figures mortal and divine, have become eternal symbols of classical perfection in art.

It was the first time in history a city state had proved so able perfectly to embody the ideals of its age. Perikles, who dominated the political scene for about 30 years, has left us in his Funeral Oration over the first dead of the war, as presented by the historian Thucydides, an idealized image of the Athenian constitution at the very beginning of the long and fatal conflict that tore apart the Greek world. The Peloponnesian War, the consequence of antagonism between Athens and Sparta, lasted for a full 27 years from 431, with the destruction of Athens' Sicilian Expedition in 413 as the critical turning point and the final fall of Athens to the Spartans in 404.

During the war, the tragedian Euripides and the comic playwright Aristophanes were at the height of their powers, while in their different ways the Sophists and Socrates encouraged philosophical investigation. The Erechthion and the temple of Athena Nike were built during this period. In sculpture the "elaborate style" made its appearance, with special interest in the movement of the human body and in elaborate drapery coveri­ng it. Through such drapery the female form was gradually revealed with sensitivity and grace.

After the war, Athens underwent a loss of political power but not a cultural decline. Democracy was restored in 403. The 4" century was that of the greatest orators, such as Lysias, Isocrates, Demosthenes, who led the struggle against King Philip of Macedon, and Lycurgus, who restored the city's finances during the last difficult years of democracy. It was in the 4" century that Plato and Aristotle, who came from Stagira in Halkidiki, titanic figures in the history of thought, set up their schools in Athens.

During the Macedonian ascendancy (338-323) Alexander the Great, to whom Aristotle had once been tutor, respected the Athenian Constitution and spread the city's culture to the ends of the known world. His untimely death soon led to the abolition of Athenian democracy in 322 at the hands of the Macedonian Antipater. After this the city decayed politically, but continued to serve as the world's philosophical and cultural centre. The important schools, apart from Plato's Academy and Aristotle's Lykion, were those of the Stoa, founded by Zenon from Cyprus, and the Garden, founded by Epicurus, an Athenian from Samos. These schools dominated philosophical thought until late antiquity. Thus Athens, from being a great political power, developed into the first Western centre of philosophical enquiry.

The Hellenistic period (323-146) was a troubled one. Art was dominated by a marked realism. Athens witnessed a partial revival with the building activities of the Pergamene kings Eumenes and Attalos, who enriched the city with beautiful stoas in the first half of the second century.

In 146 Athens, like the other cities of continental Greece, became subject to the Romans. A tragic moment came in 86 BCE when the Roman general Sulla captured and looted the city, which had at that time joined a revolt against rule from Rome.

Athens' revival from this blow was gradual and reached its peak in the second century of our era, chiefly under the philhellene Emperor Hadrian (117-138) who extended the city, built the great Library and completed the temple of Olympian Zeus. Herodes, son of Atticus, a man of extraordinary wealth, set up the last great building of antiquity, the Odeion, during the reign of the philosopher king Marcus Aurelius (161-180). In 267 the first barbarians, the Herules, broke into the city, plundering and destroying. The city shrank within a newly constructed wall. Just as the Roman Empire as a whole recovered however, so also did Athens.

"Waiting for the barbarians ...", the city was yet full of life. It hosted innumerable foreign students and travelers, and continued to be a centre of teaching. Among its visitors was the Apostle Paul around 50 CE. Three figures who studied in Athens played decisive roles in the history of that critical turning-point, the fourth century. One was the future Emperor Julian (361-3), a Neo-Platonist and the last anti-Christian Emperor. The other two were amongst the greatest figures of Christian history, Basil from Caesarea and his friend Gregory of Narianzus in Cappadocia. They formulated the faith of the Church in the Holy Trinity in its definitive form, developed a pioneering social witness through the creation of hostels and hospitals open to all human beings and opened the road for classical culture to become thenceforth a valued support to Christian education.

In 395 the barbarian Goths under Alaric attacked, but the city was able to withstand them. Athens gave Constantinople the wife of the Emperor Thodosios 11 (408-450), Athenais, daughter of a pagan philosopher who changed her name to Eudocia, and the city hosted the Neo-Platonist philosopher Proclus, from Lycia. Its philosophical brilliance was only extinguished in 529 when the Emperor Justinian (527-565) closed its philosophcal schools on account of their pagan teaching.

Through the dark centuries, which followed the repeated appearance of the bubonic plague after 541-542, the incursion of Slavs from 580, and the invasions first of the Persians into Asia Minor, and then the Arabs in the 7th century, Athens remained under the rule of Constantinople, but there was a dramatic demographic decline in Athens, as there was in the Empire. The Empress Irene (780-802), who summoned the Second Council of Nicaea in 787 to define the theological content of the doctrine of the veneration of icons, and who was also the first woman formally to rule in her own right, came from Athens. As in the wider Greek-speaking world so also in Athens this was a period of suffering and insecurity, until the expulsion of the Arabs from Crete in 961.

There was a noticeable revival in the 10th, 11th and the larger part of the 12th century, when Athens and Attica as a whole were enriched with the many beautiful churches that still adorn them, the expression of a school of architecture distinct from that in Constantinople and based in the region of Hellas. Examples are the churches of Soteira Lykodimou, a copy of the Katholikon of the Monastery of Osios Loukas in Boeotia, the Holy Apostles in the Agora, the St. Theodore in Klathmonos Square, the Kapnikarea in Ermou Street, the Gorgoepikoos (or little Metropolis); and, outside the city, the monasteries of Dafni with its important mosaics and of Kaisariani. The Parthenon was by now a Christian church dedicated to the Virgin Athiniotissa, where the Emperor Basil 11 (976-1025) gave thanks for his victories against the Bulgarians.

The scholarly bishop of Athens, Michael Choniates (1182-1204), brother of the historian Niketas, in his letters mourns the city's condition, and his laments joined with those of the Athenians when in 1204 French Crusaders captured the city, setting up the Duchy of Athens. This was the beginning of Frankish rule. There followed the mercenary Catalan Grand Company (1311-1385) and, finally, the Florentine dukes Acciajioli (1385­1394 and 1403-1446) and Venice (1394-1403), who alternated in power.

In 1456 Ottoman rule began. Important monuments of the 16th century are the Hamam of Abit Efendi, the Fetiye Cami and the church of the Metohi of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, which was built around 1600. A notable figure of the 16th century was the new martyr Filothei, the most popular Athenian saint, who was noted for social work, as for instance her founding of the first school for Athenian girls and her efforts to repatriate enslaved women to their homes. She died from wounds received at the hands of a group of the city's conquerors.

After the failure of the Ottomans to capture Vienna in 1683 there was a counterattack by the Christian powers under the leadership of Austria in the Balkans and of Venice in the Mediterranean, which led to the capture of the Peloponnese and then an attack on Athens.

On 26th September 1687 the Venetian general Morosini bombarded the Acropolis, setting off an explosion in the powder store established in the Parthenon, thus causing great damage to one of the greatest monuments ever created, which had until then remained almost intact. The six-month long Venetian occupation ended with the forced abandonment of the city by most of its inhabitants, chiefly to the Peloponnese. Three years later, however, a gradual return to Athens began. There followed a second period of Ottoman rule during which the Tsidaraki Mosque was erected (1750). In 1778 the Governor Hadji Ali Haseki built a new wall after the defeat of an attempted incursion by Muslim Albanian irregulars. Haseki then imposed heavy taxation and behaved with great severity towards the people.

The second half of the 17th century saw the gradual increase of scholarly and artistic interest manifested by the visits of European travelers while in the 18th century a series of publications for the first time revealed Athens' classical monuments to the western world. The opening of the 19th century was marked by the plundering of the Parthenon and other Athenian monuments by Europeans of high rank.

On the 25th April 1821 the people of Athens rose in revolt against the Ottoman occupation and twice besieged the Acropolis. The siege ended with a Greek victory and from 10th June 1822 Athens enjoyed four years of freedom. In 1825 however the Ottomans, strengthened by the arrival of an Egyptian army, gained the upper hand in the war. The Acropolis was again besieged from August 1826 and the Greeks surrendered in June 1827. The conquerors occupied a city of ruins.

After the naval battle of Navarino in 1827 with the victory of the united navies of Britain, France and Russia, the protocol of London in 1830 established Greece's independence. It was only in 1833 however that the Ottoman guard left the Acropolis.

In December 1834 Athens was declared capital of the state, with a population of about 10,000. Slowly but surely its appearance changed from that of a town ruined by war to that of a neoclassical city "worthy of her ancient past", as was the dream of Ludwig of Bavaria, father of independent Greece's first ruler, King Otho (1833-1862). Important European architects come to Athens to work, together with native architects, in what was described as "the Mother of Letters and of Arts". "To build for Athens today," wrote the famous Bavarian architect Leo von Klenze, "is an act of European significance."

The contribution of generous benefactors from the Hellenic Diaspora was of great importance. Amongst the examples are the National Library, the gift of the Cephallenian brothers Vallianos, the hospital Evangelismos, gift of the Chiot businessman Andreas Syngros, the Zappion, gift of Evangelos and Constantine Zappas from Northern Epiros, the Polytechnic, gift of Nickolas Stournaras from Metsovo, the Academy, a gift of Simon Sina, and the reconstruction of the Panathenaic Stadium for the Olympic Games of 1896, the gift of George Averof from Metsovo, a successful cotton trader in Alexandria. Athens, with a population of about 130.000 suc­cessfully hosted the first Olympic Games in 1896 and reached its aesthetic high point before World War I. The census of 1910 showed a population of 217.820 and that of 1921, 292.991. This number more than doubled with the mass arrival of Asia Minor refuges in 1922 and was estimated at 642,000 in 1926.

The worst years of Athens' recent history were those during the Fascist and Nazi occupation (1941-1944) immediately after the Greek victory against Mussolini's aggression on the Albanian front (1940-1941). During the great famine of the winter of 1941 tens of thousands of people died. The joy of liberation on 12th October 1944 was followed by a painful Civ­il War (Dec. 1944 - Jan. 1945). After the war Athens' population rapidly and continually increased as a result of the poverty and insecurity in many regions of the country and administrative centralization in the capital.

The twenty years from 1955 to 1975 proved a disaster for the city's appearance. One by one beautiful neoclassical buildings were demolished, to be replaced by apartment blocks built out of a cynical motivation for profit and hence with insufficient provision of open public spaces. This building activity was based on a system under which the original owner of a house obtained in return one or more of the resulting apartments. Neoclassical Athens was replaced by a gigantic cement city of four million people.

When this situation seemed to have reached a point of no return, around 1975, some Athenians, appreciating the crime that had been committed, began the long battle to improve the situation, especially in certain traditional quarters, such as Plaka, north and east of the Acropolis.

Elliniki Etairia, founded in 1972, has taken a prominent part in this ongoing campaign, helping local inhabitants to organize and arousing public opinion both within and outside Greece. In 1982 Europa Nostra, the Federation of European Conservation Organizations, acknowledged the progress achieved by the Greek Government with the award of a medal for the extensive improvement program in Plaka.

The restoration of old houses, the creation of pedestrian areas, and the small oases of green send a message of optimism. In the shadow of the Acropolis the new pedestrian streets named after the city's patron saint, Dionysios the Aeropagite, and the Apostle Paul, together with the hill of Philopappos, give citizens and visitors alike the opportunity to walk and to wonder at the magic of a city whose contribution to human civilization has been matched by that of few others.

Excerpt from: "Heritage Walks in Athens" by the Municipality of Athens Cultural Organization,
and by the Elliniki Etairia Hellenic Society for the Protection of the Environment and the Cultural Heritage

(Next Month's Article: Heritage Walk #1 - The Acropolis)

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